US governor signs Holocaust disclosure law

19th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

A US governor Thursday signed landmark legislation requiring France's state-owned SNCF railway company to disclose its role in World War II deportations to Nazi death camps before it bids on US rail contracts.

The law is the first of its kind in the United States, and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley said he hoped it "will become a national model sooner rather than later."

The law, said O'Malley, lets "Holocaust survivors who are still with us... know that the atrocities inflicted on their families and their people will never be forgotten and will never be repeated."

Ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz, who in 1942 escaped from an SNCF transport bound for the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz by prying apart the windows of the cattle car he was crammed into with 50 deportees, hailed the legislation as "a good beginning."

But 56 years after the end of World War II, Bretholz said he mainly "wants a declaration of contrition from the SNCF -- yes, we've done it, we are guilty."

Bretholz wrote a book about his escape and survival in World War II, telling a story of 1,000 Jews packed 50 to a cattle car who were with him on that November morning in 1942. The passengers were shipped out of Drancy, near Paris. Many died en route to Auschwitz and 773 were gassed on arrival at the Nazi death camp in southern Poland.

"Nothing can bring back the dead people. What I want mainly is for justice to be done. At least a contrite statement -- we've done something very wrong, we have done something that is entirely inhumane," he told AFP.

Last November, SNCF boss Guillaume Pepy met in Florida with elected representatives and Jewish community groups to express his regret over the deportations after US lawmakers threatened the SNCF's chances of winning high speed rail contracts.

But the company has also insisted it was forced by France's World War II German occupiers to help deport 76,000 French Jews to the gas chambers, and noted that 2,000 of its own rail workers were executed.

"They've argued they were coerced by the Nazis, that they had a gun to their head, but that's simply not the case," said attorney Raphael Prober who worked pro bono for Holocaust survivors seeking reparations from the SNCF for its wartime actions.

"They collaborated willingly with the Nazis. They were paid per head, per kilometer" to transport thousands of people from France to Nazi death camps like Auschwitz in occupied Poland, where at least a million Jews died in gas chambers built by the Nazis to carry out their "final solution."

Prober handed AFP a copy of an invoice "for transportation" sent by the SNCF to a French regional official, just days before the liberation of Paris in 1944.

"This is an invoice... seeking to be paid for services rendered for deporting thousands of people to their deaths, including Leo Bretholz," Prober said.

"For the company to say that they had no hand in this and that they were coerced is belied by history and the facts and the personal accounts we've heard from the people on the trains."

In addition to the Maryland commuter rail project, the SNCF bid last year on a $2.6-billion rail project linking the Florida cities of Orlando and Tampa that is part of President Barack Obama's multi-billion-dollar initiative to improve rail service across the Unites States, and a rail project in California.

The SNCF's US affiliate was awarded a contract to run commuter rail services in the state of Virginia, which, like Maryland, is next to the US capital.

"The French were paid to transport thousands of people to their death, and now they want to build trains in the US and they'll make more money," said Bretholz.

"I don't think we, as survivors, I don't think our tax dollars should go to that," he told AFP.

"It's adding insult to injury."

© 2011 AFP

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